In the direct aftermath of September 11, two wildly different spy shows premiered in the US. The first was Alias, one of my favorite shows of all time (I recently reviewed its spectacular pilot). The second was 24, a groundbreaking series that adopted a more grounded and realistic take on the spy world. Sure it would later on go to become highly implausible, but 24‘s pilot at least commits to delivering a somewhat believable world. It’s not the most perfect start to the show, but it hooks you right from the start.
The best thing 24 has going for it is the real-time format. The first of its kind, every episode of the show acts as an hour in one REALLY long day in agent Jack Bauer’s life. It’s a genius concept, and one that injects a great sense of urgency into every development. In addition, the show uses split screens to maximum effect, carefully juggling its various subplots and lending the most mundane of story twists an even greater sense of impact (especially as episodes come to a close).
Of course no amount of plot hijinks could succeed if our protagonist wasn’t so well cast, but Keifer Sutherland is a badass choice as the CTU agent tasked with foiling a hit on the President. Sutherland is immediately likeable, and his resourcefulness is on full display, particularly the manner in which he blackmails his superior to get what he needs. Now here’s a hero to root for!
The pilot’s single greatest sequence is the epic reveal of the ominous assassin: the entire hour leads us to believe that the hitman is a sleazy foreign photographer, only to completely pull the rug out from under us by revealing his flight paramour to be the killer. Played to utter perfection by Mia Kirshner, Mandy is a wonderfully ruthless and effective villain. The bombshell twist is blood-pumpingly good, as we see her casually rig the plane with explosives and blow it pieces before making her parachute escape. Outstanding!
Sadly, not every subplot in the pilot is a winner. Whereas the Alias pilot found a way to utilize every character in an impeccable manner, 24 struggles out the gate with regards to Jack’s daughter Kim (who would end up almost sinking the show in later seasons). Her boy troubles in the pilot are horrendously cliche and uninteresting, and they detract from the high-stakes of the impending presidential assassination. I get what the writers were going for: force Jack to deal with drama in both his professional and personal life, but the interest level when it comes to Kim is just non-existent. It doesn’t ruin the pilot, but it does prevent it from being flawless.
– A little history lesson: Jack has experience busting moles in the agency. That means his co-worker Tony ain’t a fan!
– It says a lot that Kim tells the boy that her father is dead. Ouch.
– I love everything about Jack’s plan: how he tranquillizes Mason, and then blackmails him with the money to uncover the source.
– Typical high school stuff: Tony is in love with Nina, and she was sleeping with Jack (perhaps that’s why he had marriage troubles?).
– I hate to compare 24 to Alias once more, but unlike the latter, this show is boring from a visual perspective. The sets, the repetitive alleys – it’s all so mundane and dull to look at.
– Presidential candidate David Palmer and his wife Sherry don’t get much screen-time in the pilot, but there’s obviously something amiss in their relationship. Hmmm…
– It’s unfortunate, but there’s not a single line of inspired dialogue in the entire pilot. Why?
– Love how Mandy stumbles and then viciously injects the hostess in the neck.
– Great touch with Mandy having stolen the photographer’s ID (since it allows her entry to meet the President for the photoshoot).
– The only truly memorable visual in the pilot: the stunning shot of Mandy falling through the air as the flames from the plane’s explosion rain down behind her. It probably saved the show a whole lot from a budget perspective too!
– So Alan York is definitely suspicious right? Could he be kidnapping Terri too?
– One of those aggravating TV moments: Terri being cut off at the green light by the van carrying Kim!
It’s not the best pilot ever made, but 24’s unique gimmick (and unexpected plot turns) make for a thrilling start.